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Part II – Chapter 14

Relief from suffering.

Many people look to meditation as a momentary oasis of peace, a refuge from the hustle and bustle of the world, a remedy against the stresses and strains of everyday living. They use it in order to get a bit of daily peace and calm, to get ‘centered’ again and recover self-control, so as to better cope with their lives. Even so, if they practice it regularly, over a long enough period, for enough time daily, they are sure to discover anyway its larger, more radical spiritual benefits.

One general goal of meditation we have not so far mentioned is relief from suffering. We all to varying degrees, at various times of our lives, experience suffering – and nobody really likes it[1]. The wish to avoid or rid oneself of suffering is often the primary impulse or motive for meditation, before we develop a broader perspective (like “spiritual development”, for instance) relating to this practice.

Thus, “liberation” is often taken to at first mean “liberation from suffering”, before it is understood as “liberation from restraints on the will”. These two interpretations are not as opposed as they might seem, because suffering is a negative influence on volition, so when we free ourselves of the former, we experience the latter’s release. Contentment, the antithesis of suffering, implies a smoothly flowing life.

The relation between meditation and relief from suffering is not always simple and direct. Although it is true that over time meditation renders one immune to many disturbances, it may first for awhile make us much more sensitive to them[2]. When we are more unconscious, our faculties function in coarser ways, so we feel less. As we refine our faculties, and become more conscious, we naturally feel more clearly. For this reason, a meditator may even on occasion find inner peace a bit scary and build a resistance to it, like someone who gingerly avoids a surface he suspects has a static electricity charge[3]. Peace, too, takes getting used to.

Suffering should not be confused with pain, but rather refers to our psychological response to feelings of pain. Some people cannot handle felt pain at all; whereas some, though they feel the same pain, do not take it to heart as much. Moreover, suffering refers not only to experienced pain, but may refer to lack of pleasure; i.e. to the frustration of not getting pleasure one wished for or expected, or of having lost pleasure one had for a while.

All this of course concerns mental as well as bodily pain or pleasure. Pain or pleasure may be felt as a purely physical sensation (e.g. a burnt finger or a pang of hunger); or as a visceral sentiment occurring in the body but having a mental cause (e.g. cold fear in the belly or warm love in the chest); or again, as a purely mental experience (e.g. a vague feeling of depression or elation).

Suffering primarily refers to actual pain; but it often refers to remembered or anticipated pains. For example, one may suffer for years over a bad childhood experience; or again, one may suffer much in anticipation of a big and difficult job one has to do soon. Suffering can also relate to abstract or conceptual things, whether past, present or future. For example, one might suffer at the general injustice of life. In all such cases, however, some present concrete negative feelings are felt, and the suffering may be taken to refer to them.

Buddhist teaching has the fact of human suffering at its center. This is made evident in the Four Noble Truths taught by the founder of this religion, viz.: (1) that life is suffering, i.e. that suffering of some kind or another is inevitable in the existence of sentient beings like ourselves; (2) that such suffering has a cause, namely our attachments to things of this world, our desire for pleasures and aversion to pains; (3) that we can be rid of suffering, if we rid ourselves of its cause (attachment); and finally, that the way to be rid of suffering is through the Eightfold Path.

The latter list of means includes meditation, as a very effective tool for discovering one’s attachments and the ways to break away from our addiction to them. Just as soon as one begins to practice meditation, one discovers its power to make us relatively indifferent to pain or lack of pleasure – i.e. to make us suffer less readily and intensely.[4]

Buddhists argue, additionally, that the ultimate obstacle to freedom from suffering is belief in a self – for to have a self is to have particular interests, and therefore to experience pain when these interests are frustrated (as is inevitable sooner or later) and pleasure when they are (momentarily) satisfied. It follows, in their view, that liberation from suffering (the third Noble Truth) would not be conceivable, if the “emptiness” of the self were not advocated. For only a ‘non-self’ can be free from the blows inherent to an impermanent world like ours.

However, I beg to differ from this doctrine, not to categorically reject it, but to point out that an alternative doctrine is equally possible. We could equally argue, from a Monotheistic point of view, that when the individual soul dissolves back in the universal Soul, which is God, it is conceivably free from all subjection to the vagaries of this material-mental world. The illusion of individuation, rather than the alleged illusion of selfhood, may be considered a sufficient cause of liability to suffering; and the removal of this cause may suffice to remove suffering.

Again I emphasize: the debate about the self is theoretical and does not (in my view) affect the effectiveness of meditation.

The practical lesson to draw from the Buddhist teaching is the importance of ‘attachment’ in human psychology. This realization, that the root of suffering is the pursuit of supposed pleasures, or avoidance of pains, is central. Anxiety, frustration, vexation, anger, disappointment, depression – such emotions are inevitable under the regime of attachment, in view of the impermanence of all mundane values.

If worldly pleasure of any sort is pursued, pain is sure to eventually ensue. If the pursuit of pleasure is successful, such success is necessarily short-lived, and one is condemned to protect existing pleasure or pursue pleasure again, or one will feel pain at one’s loss. If the pursuit of pleasure is unsuccessful, one experiences the pain of not having gotten what one wanted, and one is condemned to keep trying again and again till successful. Similarly, the avoidance of pain is a full time job with no end in sight – a pain in itself.[5]

It is therefore wise to steer clear of attachment, and develop a more aloof approach to the lower aspects of life. This not only saves one from eventual suffering, but releases one’s energies for the pursuit of lasting spiritual values.

Meditation helps us (the self, the soul) to objectify and thus transcend the feelings experienced in body and mind. This can be understood by contrasting two propositional forms:

(a) “I feel [this or that feeling]”, and

(b) “I am experiencing [having a certain body-mind feeling]”.

These two sentences might be considered superficially equivalent – but their different structure is intended to highlight important semantic differences. In (a), the subject “I” is a vague term, and the verb and its complement are taken at face value. In (b), the subject “I” is a more specific term, and the verb and complement are intended with more discrimination.

In (a), the subject considers the act of feeling a feeling as its own act, an extension of itself. In (b), the subject lays claim only to the cognitive fact of experiencing, considering all else as mere object relative to this exclusively cognitive act. The sense of “I” is therefore clearly different in the two sentences: in (a), the ego is meant, whereas in (b) it is the self or soul that is meant.

This is to illustrate that to transcend feelings, we have to objectify them, and more precisely identify our “I” or self with our spiritual dimension (or soul) rather than with our body and mind.

[1] Not even masochists, who use one kind of pain as a palliative against another kind of pain. For instance, they might pursue physical pain to avoid having to face some sense of guilt or to forget some unpleasant childhood experience.

[2] A meditator may barely notice a sudden loud noise like an explosion, yet find “music” like rock or techno (with very few mellow exceptions) utterly unbearable! In contrast to a non-meditator, who might jump up with fright at the explosion, yet find supermarket canned music relaxing.

[3] Such resistance has been called “the dread of enlightenment”. In fact, most people who have heard of meditation but have never dared to try it have this dread. They think that they will somehow get lost and drowned in the sea of enlightenment. Indeed, they will do so – in the sense that they will lose their individuality. But what must be understood is that this prospect is not frightful but cause for elation.

[4] In yoga, they teach an attitude called pratyahara, which consists in focusing clearly on pain one is feeling, calmly assessing its exact extent and intensity; after awhile, a pain thus stared at tends to disappear or at least it feels less urgent. This is, then, a sort of detachment from or transcendence of pain – not through avoiding it, but by facing it.

[5] Suffering takes many intricate or convoluted forms. Consider for instance the frustration of a rich man, who already has everything he could possibly need or want, and so finds nothing new to spend his money on. He is not free of material attachments, he has the necessary material means, but the world has nothing more or new to offer him. This is a danger of riches – because the tendency in such situations is to turn to new, more and more perverse, sensations.

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